Five Minutes With … Nova Scotia's Ironworks Distillery

Microdistilleries are popping up all over in Atlantic Canada. We spoke with one of the pioneers, which makes rum, apple brandy and liqueurs in Lunenburg, N.S.

On a sunny summer afternoon in a former blacksmith's shop in the town of Lunenburg, N.S., a crowd is forming. Along one inner wall, shoppers peruse lit-up shelves inside old wooden barrels holding bottles of booze: brandy made from Annapolis Valley apples, rum distilled from Crosby's molasses (headquartered in Saint John, N.B.), and liqueur made with cranberries from nearby Heckman's Island. Next to the till, a few tasters sip from tiny plastic cups. And in the corner beside the steampunk still – all copper bulbs and tubes and little windows displaying the drips that show distilling is in action – staff member Monica gathers a small group of the truly dedicated, who have handed over $10 in exchange for a tour and full tasting of the entire range of spirits and liqueurs.

This is Ironworks, a creative adventure turned entrepreneurial success story that has recently hit the five-year mark. It distils and sells from its headquarters in the picturesque town of Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site an hour's drive from Halifax that's a perennial hit with tourists. We spoke with co-founder Lynne MacKay on tasting tips and secrets to their spirited success – and plans for the future.

On business development “We bought the building in June 2009, spent a year renovating, and opened in June 2010. The mantra was to make booze out of anything that grows in Nova Scotia, but we very quickly (due to local demand) had to expand this to include rum (which is made from sugarcane molasses). We opened with our apple-based vodka, apple brandy in its youthful form, pear eau de vie, and cranberry and blueberry liqueurs. That was the full roster for the first little while.

“Somebody walked in a couple years after that with Saskatoon berries – we couldn’t resist. We’ve expanded to raspberry, which has become very popular, and strawberry-rhubarb, which is an interesting and eclectic beverage that always has a lot of memories for people. The apple brandy has picked up speed, and we do two variations on the pear eau de vie: the aged is a little more mellow, the original is unaged.

“We don’t really want to become a factory. We want to be able to go off in small directions, and because we’re so tiny that’s what we can do. Ninety per cent of the pleasure is the whimsical nature of it. The only real pressure I had in recent years was to make a gin. It was such a nasty winter, I managed to hunker down and make recipes.”

Adam McDowell

Lynne MacKay of Ironworks Distillery

Success in product, and marketing In terms of our liqueurs, success is an interesting challenge. We don’t like much sugar – our liqueurs tend to be very much about the fruit, which I think has been a large factor in their popularity. In a way, we’ve created something unusual, but by doing something unusual we have to be there to hand-hold people through the process [and get them to try the liqueurs]. We also quickly realized people like black rum.

We have exceptional fruit down here in Nova Scotia, and our process is very simple: good fermentation methods, high-quality yeast. We’re pretty stringent with our methods, and that shows in the product.

This summer I think we were in a total of 19 farmer's markets over the course of the season. That’s been one of the nice things about Nova Scotia. They were one of the first provinces to embrace the concept of booze at a farmer’s market. That’s helped with the aforementioned liqueur challenge – to be able to give people a taste has been a helpful way to expand people’s knowledge of our products.

Travel with a purpose  We do tend to travel with distilling in mind. It’s become our little hobby, and it’s not difficult to do. Whether it be northern France or Alsace or Scotland, there’s always a rash of distillers you can discover. I have one place in mind, St. George Spirits (http://www.stgeorgespirits.com/) (in California). I like his philosophies and the interesting things he’s doing with fruit eau de vies. I would never be sad to go to London and learn more about gin. Then there’s always the sunny Caribbean and its rum distilling.

Tasting tips We love it when people try our spirits neat. I always make cracks that you don’t go into a fine scotch distillery and ask them where their mix is. Try it slowly, and not like you try wine, where you swirl it around and inhale greatly, because that’s going to blow your nose into smithereens. You should ask the spirit to seduce you rather than dive right in; get to know the nose, but very gently. Take tiny sips. The first will always be kind of a shock – getting your mouth used to it is an exercise – but taste number two will be more intriguing. Take it slowly, and enjoy with friends.

Liqueurs, on the other hand, you can pretty much go crazy with. They go all kinds of places, from ice cream to cocktails to the little glasses you got ages ago and don’t know what to do with.

It’s better at the blacksmith’s shop We got the building because it was uber appealing and had massive character, and in so doing it has actually defined our company. One downside of being where we are is the lack of space, but that’s counteracted by the fact that the horse and buggy ride goes past our door in the summertime twice an hour. Some folks come in and they’re not necessarily into the alcohol, but they really like that the building was built in 1893 and has links to the sailing vessels. To be able to give them that as well as the new use of the building is kind of lovely.

We don’t want to expand dramatically. We’ve expanded our reach sufficiently that we’ve been able to hire people to help us out, and that’s fabulous. The distilling world is taking off in Nova Scotia. When we started there was us and Lauchie (MacLean, of Glenora Distillers) up north doing the whisky and a gal in the valley doing liqueurs (Beverly McClare of Tangled Valley), and now there are I think eight or nine in the province. We were there in the beginning, and it’s been a lot of fun all the way.

Oct. 16 to 18, 2015, visit Lunenburg to join Ironworks and other local distillers at the first-ever Spirited Away, a Nova Scotia craft spirits festival.

Find Ironworks products at their location in Lunenburg, seasonally at select Nova Scotia farmer's markets, and at select locations in Halifax: Saturdays at the Seaport Farmer's Market and at private liquor shops Bishop's Cellar, Rockhead Wine & Beer, Harvest Wine & Spirits and Cristall Wine Merchants.

Published Monday, September 21st 2015

Header image credit: Courtesy, Nova Scotia Tourism



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